Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Not all crime fiction has to be dark and bleak. But crime fiction that’s too light and ‘frothy’ also isn’t very believable. It can be a real challenge for an author to write a lighter murder mystery while at the same time making it engaging and authentic enough to keep readers interested. To show you what I mean about this balance, let’s turn the spotlight today on Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder.
Verity Long has been assistant to famous mystery novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport for six months. She does some secretarial things (answering mail, co-ordinating her boss’ schedule, etc.) but her job also involves looking up the details of real-life ‘cold case’ crimes. KD uses those details as the bare bones of her best-sellers, adding her own fictional details. So far the arrangement has worked well for both of them, to the point where Long is ready to move to a nicer place than the one she has now – one that’s closer to the center of Crofterton. She and a house agent visit a prospective home one afternoon and that’s where Long discovers the body of TV celebrity Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson.
Since Long found the body, she’s one of the first people the police interview and she comes in for her share of suspicion since her presence at the scene is a little too convenient. But even after DI Jerry Farish no longer considers her a suspect Long takes an interest in the case since, as she puts it,
‘But I am involved…I found her body.’
Long begins to investigate and soon finds that JayJay Johnson was not the beloved co-presenter that she seemed to be. So there are several suspects in Johnson’s personal life and among her colleagues and other studio employees.
In the meantime, Long’s gotten information on a ‘cold case’ that her employer might be able to use for a future novel. Fourteen-year-old Charlotte Neal was on her way home from a friend’s house in 1990 when she disappeared. No trace of her – not even a body – was found, and the police never got solid leads on what happened to her. So while she’s trying to find out what happened to JayJay Johnson, Long also follows up on the Charlotte Neal case. She interviews the investigating officer, she searches for friends and family members and she puts ads in local papers. As she looks deeper into this case, Long discovers that there were actually two Charlotte Neal cases. The second involved a girl who was killed in a hit-and-run incident. This case was never solved either. The more Long learns about these cases, the clearer it becomes that someone doesn’t want her to find out what really happened. As it turns out, the past and present cases do have a connection and in the end Long finds out who killed JayJay Johnson and what happened to both Charlotte Neals.
Verity Long is more than anything else a research assistant. So we get an interesting look at the way people go about researching novels. Long reads newspaper articles and other media reports and interviews police officers, witnesses, family members and other people, and we get the chance to see how someone who doesn’t have the force of law gets people to talk. And her personality is well-suited for the job. She’s smart, curious and tenacious. And while those qualities do get her into danger in a few places in the novel, they also help her get to the truth. We can see why KD hired her.
Long’s appeal as a character also comes from the fact that she’s neither perfect nor blindly devoted to her work. She enjoys good food and good wine. She can be stubborn and she sometimes takes more risks than she should. Readers who are tired of the ‘female protagonist in distress’ theme in mysteries should take heart, though. Long is certainly human and therefore vulnerable. But she isn’t foolhardy and she does a fairly good job of taking care of herself. It’s not hard to be on her side as she tries to unravel these mysteries.
Another element that runs through this novel is the story of both Charlotte Neals. As Long finds out bits and pieces of information about the two girls, we learn what they were like. Their stories are woven into the novel through the research Long does and those stories are at least as interesting as the case of JayJay Johnson is. Although KD plans to use some of the details in an upcoming novel, it’s clear that both she and Long respect the girls’ memories.
There’s also an element of romance in this novel. Long and Farish are attracted to each other and they develop a relationship as the novel goes on. But to Wilcox’s credit, their relationship evolves naturally, and it’s not without its challenges. First, neither is perfect. What’s more, Farish finds it hard as a cop to balance his personal and his working life. Long feels shut out when Farish can’t or doesn’t wish to discuss his work. And both are wary of relationships in any case. Refreshingly, this romance is woven into the novel without being such a major part of it that it takes over, and without being too ‘glossy.’
There’s a solid thread of humour woven through the novel too. Both KD and Long have a somewhat sarcastic way of looking at life and that comes through in the story. Here, for instance, is a scene during which Long and her boss are at a benefit fête where it’s hoped that KD’s ‘celebrity author’ status will draw in money:
‘I wandered around, my pace leisurely, my mind occupied not with the fun on offer but with darker thoughts. Determined not to open my purse, I relented and tried my luck at a bottle stall, run in aid of MacMillan Nurses. Naturally, from a large trestle table filled with every type of brandy, whisky, wine and liqueurs, I came away with nothing more than a bottle of nail polish. Green nail polish! Still, I didn’t really mind, at least my money had gone to a good cause.’
Long’s sense of humour is dry and refreshing and makes sense given her personality. There are some funny scenes too. For instance, at one point Long is doing some snooping in an office at the television studio. She hears someone coming and dives into the rest room attached to the office. The two people who come in intend to use the office for some ‘extracurricular activity’ and Long’s trapped in the rest room until they leave.
The working relationship between KD and Long is also an interesting element in the story. They are employer and employee, and yet they’re friends too. KD cares about Long and more than once is very helpful to her. And although even KD admits she’s difficult to work for, Long respects her boss’ intelligence, commercial savvy and ability to craft a good mystery. They have a similar outlook on life, too.
The mysteries themselves make sense and Long finds out the truth in believable ways. And after all, how can you not want to read more in a novel that begins this way:
‘I had been on the job only six months when my employer pulled a gun on me.’
Truly an attention-getting first line.
Strictly Murder is a light but not ‘frothy’ crime novel featuring a down-to-earth, practical sleuth, a believable set of mysteries and some humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Strictly Murder? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – Kiss and Tell – TJ Cooke
Monday 4 February/Tuesday 5 February – Louisiana Bigshot – Julie Smith
Monday 11 February/Tuesday 12 February – The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill